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Mussolini’s atrocity in Ethiopia was not any less Barbaric then Hittler’s
by Ian Campbell (Hurst, £24)
ON FEBRUARY 19, 1937, less than a year after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, resistance fighters threw hand grenades at members of the fascist Italian high command as they assembled for a public ceremony at the occupied emperor’s palace in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. No-one was killed but a handful of highranking officials were injured.
The guerilla attack provided the perfect excuse for an immediate response of incredible brutality from the Italian occupying forces as they embarked on a three-day orgy of bloody depravity that killed 19,000 Ethiopians in the capital — a fifth of the population.
With dreadful savagery Italian civilians, [fascist paramilitary] blackshirts and army personnel, encouraged by an official announcement that they had “carta bianca” — permission to do what they wanted — flooded onto the streets to bludgeon defenceless local citizens to death with shovels, daggers, clubs and anything else they had to hand.
Families were sealed inside their huts as they were set alight with flame throwers, men were tied alive to trucks and driven around until they were torn apart and hand grenades were thrown into crowds of fleeing innocents. Women and young girls were raped and disembowelled, while others had their hands tied behind their backs and were thrown off bridges and into wells.
Even when the authorities called an official halt to the slaughter after 72 hours, the murder, rape, torture and pillaging continued for many more days. For months afterwards, thousands were herded into concentration camps, where they perished from hunger or disease.
For the past 25 years, author Ian Campbell has tasked himself with gathering as much material as he can find about this horrific frenzy of bloodlust which, he argues, gives the lie to the idea that Mussolini’s brand of fascism was somehow more benign than Hitler’s nazism.
Amazingly, thanks to Allied prevarication after the second world war, no-one was ever brought to book for the crimes committed over those three days and, while most of the Italian protagonists are now dead and gone, Campbell has been determined to put their deeds down on paper for all to see.
This is by far the most complete account of the massacre ever constructed and it is an important, impressive body of work. What it is not, though, is a “good read.” In Campbell’s understandable commitment to corroborating and confirming the evidence, his 478-page tome takes on the feel of a long inquiry report rather than a book.
As it progresses painstakingly through the atrocities, the author’s commitment to providing a narrative gradually wanes and, by the second half, the reader has to be content with little more than a series of disjointed observations, potted histories and eyewitness accounts, rather than any held-together story.
As a document designed for posterity that approach might be justified but, as a book, the job could have been done using half the space.
Does that matter? Probably yes, because one of Campbell’s stated aims is to bring much greater attention to a forgotten corner of history. Crass as it may appear to ask for such wicked events to be presented in a more engaging fashion, the truth is that by doing so Campbell would have had a much better chance of reaching a wider audience.